May 26, 2020: The funeral will be later this week. The phones light up non-stop, as people hear the news and reach out. The past several days have been a flurry of picture sharing, anecdote swapping, planning, crying. And anger. Lots of anger.
The church will only allow ten people at a time, and nobody is allowed near the casket (because COVID-19 may be involved). Someone knowledgeable told us morticians often aren’t informed how a person died, so they have to treat every body as if it had COVID-19. I’m actually glad we’ll have to stay outside for the service, not because of the pandemic but I just don’t want to be stuck in a building for this. There will be masks, of course. I’ve gotten used to wearing them by now, sort of.
I won’t get into the details here but it is becoming more and more apparent that someone really screwed up. (Hence, the anger.) We have to wait a couple months for the full autopsy report to know for sure, but there is this creeping fear that his death was preventable, that the ER screwed up by sending him home three times on the same day. The preliminary report identified what went wrong that killed him, but wasn’t sure what may have caused it. COVID-19 is among the possibilities, as are some longer-term conditions that may have lurked beneath the surface (though if so then why they weren’t caught by his very regular visits to the pediatrician is an important question). But the universal reaction from friends (especially medical professionals) when they hear his story is: why didn’t they keep him overnight for observation? Why did they send him home repeatedly despite his symptoms?
We’re not medical professionals and shouldn’t second-guess them, but a little boy is dead. Our hope is that the state will be asking the same questions. In any event, we have a funeral and a family to tend to.
On the positive side, our relative in Chicago has fully recovered from COVID-19, despite his own lengthy health issues beforehand.
Be well —
May 21, 2020: My nephew, a beautiful, inquisitive, laughing boy less than two years old, passed away this morning. We’re not sure if it was COVID-19; there will be an autopsy. He had odd symptoms for a week or so and had been repeatedly to the pediatrician, including three times yesterday. The doctor didn’t think it was COVID-19, so he didn’t test for it. So we don’t know. When they tried to wake him this morning, he was blue. It has the hallmarks of the syndromes children infected with C-19 are described as suffering from in the news — but at this stage, we just don’t know.
I am an adult and supposed to understand death, but the idea that this lively little boy is now in a bag on a stainless steal table somewhere in a refrigerated room confounds me. I don’t understand death. I understand it biologically, but I can’t wrap my head around the reality I won’t be chasing him around my non-child-proofed living room anymore, stopping him from grabbing everything. I was going to be that uncle, the one who sneaked him out of his parents’ house when he was 14 years old and took him shooting. I’m watching the sun slowly set now, and I can’t believe it will never rise with him in this world again.
He is survived by his sister, who is a few years older. He was gregarious and went out and grabbed the world, she is more circumspect, preferring to wait and observe. He pretty much decided instantly that you were his best friend. I will have to work more with her. I’m going to have to play a bigger role going forward as uncle for her, I think.
So I got the call this morning from my wife telling me to immediately head for her sister’s place. There was a family dynamic at play, as always, but the entire ride there, I just kept wondering what I was going to do. I decided to do what I always do when I don’t know how to behave: I channeled my father. My Dad handled these kinds of situations well and knew how to comfort people. And so I pretended to be my Dad, and tried to somehow help this young family with a gaping hole in it cope for just a little bit. Hugging, sitting, crying, sharing some stories. They were like the proverbial deer in the headlights.
And so we move forward. On the plus side, this is pushing the family closer together again. I need to keep that momentum, and be the husband, brother-in-law and uncle everyone needs me to be.
Be well, and hug those closest to you —
May 20, 2020: A nice warm spring week and people — including this homo sapien – are enjoying it. I wonder if this will take some of the edge off quarantine angst. Saw a line at the local ice cream place at noon today when I ran out on some errands at lunch. Per the governor’s new direction this past weekend, some local restaurants have set up tables out in their parking lots. One erected a tent.
Also wondering if my barber is open.
If I may do some minor bragging, a teacher of a high school class at some private school in Los Angeles last week reached out, saying he was using my book in his class and his kids loved it. (He included a pic of each of them holding their copy of my book.) He asked if I would mind doing some Q&A with his kids, which happened Tuesday. These kids were actually very engaged and excited about history, and asked questions that I would have deemed sophisticated coming from an adult audience. They were asking about sources, modern politics and history, and research methodology — high school kids! It was a thoroughly enjoyable experience. I hooked a couple up with some experts in the fields they were writing their papers on. Afterward the teacher said they think I’m “like a basketball star.” I think that’s a compliment. It was a big gas to again see someone — a group of people — reading, enjoying and finding value in my book.
(One kid asked why I have a day job if I’ve already published a book, especially a history book. I told him he’ll never see a historian driving a Maserati.)
Be well —
May 17, 2020: Things had gone well the first time my wife cut my hair a couple weeks ago. I showed her how to adjust the clippers, sat in the bathroom with a towel draped around my neck, and even had some tissues handy just in case there was any…blood. But it all went fine, and both of us were pleased with the outcome. Heck, even John the Elder commented about it in one of our Wednesday night meetings (now online, sans Halligans).
Which is why today was such a…disappointment. I was positioned on the bathroom floor again, confident this would be a quick drill. She started on my neck and made a single stripe up the back of my head, when I realized that she had forgotten to put the adjustable trimming guard on. This meant she had shaved off a stripe of what little hair I had, straight up the back of my head. She spent a few moments trying to hide this by micro-trimming the hair on both sides of her stripe, but after some time it became clear the easiest path forward was simply to shave it all off. This means I am at a stage in my life where even peach fuzz is aspirational.
As she has reminded me since repeatedly, it will grow back, at least in the back and on the sides where I still have some functioning follicles. She has taken every opportunity today to let me know she likes this look.
It was warm enough (and not monsooning) today for us to enjoy our dinner out on the back porch. It was an extreme pleasure to just listen to the birds, and watch the sun set. However, one minor concern is that a critter cam has revealed we have a resident woodchuck. I think we had him last year as well, which would be good news, as he did not bother the vegetable gardens. I saw a woodchuck in the far backyard last year, and the critter cam caught him wandering back there again a week ago — but deployment of the cam on the back of the house this week revealed he is happily wandering up this close. I am concerned about a clash of interests once the garden goes in.
Still getting mixed, but better news about our relative. Seemingly his condition is improving.
Be well —
May 15, 2020: Our relative may go back on the ventilator. We’re getting some mixed signals, but we don’t want to press too hard — his poor wife is at wit’s end. There is a little voice in the back of my mind that suggests we ought to prepare for her to possibly end up living with us. Mentally, we’re kind of in contingency mode nowadays. We talked a bit tonight about having our nieces visit us, maybe around Christmas — a desperate hope and grasp for normalcy.
Something as simple as an oil change has become more complicated. My wife’s car was long passed due, so we called our regular local guy for an appointment. At first, all was normal but then he called back today and said one of his customers whom he’d recently serviced called back to say she now has tested positive for COVID-19, so he is going into isolation for two weeks. I’m grateful that he put our health before his financial need, but what a bizarre world. I thanked him for making the right decision.
Today we had a strong warm front come through pushing tropical, humid air, and it felt good. It didn’t last; a cold front followed quick on its heels, and we had thunderstorms and meteorological drama, but mostly the theatrical kind. Lotsa rain. I only very belatedly put the lawnmower in the shop a week or so ago for a tune-up, blade sharpening, etc., and they told me it might be as much as a month before I get it back. Ugh. I’m going to have a a full-blown field by then. Maybe I’ll hire some kid to cut it once. That said, I’ll take care of the snow blower myself, drain the gas tanks, etc., — soon, long before winter.
Be well —
May 14, 2020: Our relative has shown some improvement, but not as much as doctors would like. He seems to be out of the extreme danger zone, but is not seen as out of the woods yet. Yesterday he was off the ventilator and communicative, but today, pretty much unchanged. He’s had big health issues in the past which is generating a lot of concern. An old friend reached out today just to check up; it was a nice conversation. We keep planning some sort of backyard shindig when that sort of thing is possible, to have friends over and just have fun.
Growing up in New York, I inherited an automatic sales tax-calculating mechanism in my head that still kicks in occasionally, so that after a decade and a half living in New Hampshire, I can still be surprised at the check-out when there’s no tax on my purchase. Anyway, my brain tends to work that way. This was reflected yesterday when a sort of dashboard light in my head lit up in the morning informing me that I needed to make sure the car had enough gas for the usual Wednesday night WFoD writer’s group festivities. In COVID-19 2020, the more appropriate reaction was to make sure the laptop was charged.
About the only time I get out nowadays is when I go shopping, so I can report that today MarketBasket was well stocked, and people were a bit sullen but mostly polite, even occasionally friendly.
Be well —
May 12, 2020: This is a what-the-fuck post. So I reported back on May 1st that a relative of ours is a nurse who was attending to a patient who, when the visit was over, informed her she had tested positive for COVID-19. Why the f— would you still go out in public then? Anyway, to make the proverbial long story short, despite all precautions, this past weekend she (our relative) noticed her husband seemed a bit “off” one morning and took him to the local hospital to get tested. Today, just days later, he has double-pneumonia, is on a ventilator, and is fighting for his life. He has had respiratory problems in the past, and had a major health crisis some years back. He is now receiving some sort of experimental drug. She is not allowed to see him, and in fact she is self-isolating, given that she obviously is now a carrier. (They have adult kids, whom I think don’t live at home anymore.) Communications within the family are being controlled to limit panic.
So be well, but do the responsible thing, for f— sake.
May 9, 2020: Woke up to snow this morning. I knew that was coming, but later, at around noon, we got a snow squall. All the trees and plants are budding; hope they survive.
While food shopping this week at MarketBasket, noticed the meats were fairly well-stocked despite national fears of shortages as meat plants are forced to close. But, for some odd reason, the produce section was absolutely ransacked. No lettuce, only a few severely anemic peppers, no mushrooms, whole shelves empty. Glad to see Americans in quarantine are eating healthier, but what the hell — what’s with the panic shopping?
OK, I can confess now. I am a hoarder. And I don’t mean books. Well, I hoard those too, but that’s for another blog. While at MarketBasket I thought while strolling down the paper aisle that maybe I ought to get some paper towels. So I grabbed 4 of the cheapies. But when I got home I realized we already had some in the usual space upstairs, but no problem — I’ll just put them downstairs near the laundry stuff, as overflow. When I got downstairs I realized I’d apparently already done this recently, as there were 8 rolls already dutifully stored.
Saw a drive-through church today, which for some reason struck me as hilarious. I roared laughing all the way down Route 106.
We — my wife and I — were in the middle of some store today when I complained about the damned face mask fogging my glasses. I read somewhere that this was a sign of dirty glasses, and that properly cleaning said glasses will resolve the issue, but that turned out to be a load of horse s*** as I was once again fighting with fogged glasses in a store, trying not to bump into people because I just couldn’t see. But in the midst of my tirade on the subject of fogged glasses, my wife reached over and pinched the nose of my disposable mask, which closed off the access point for my breath — and lo! My glasses stopped fogging. Who knew? She wears these things all the time at work. I don’t.
A woman in a local town group on Facebook let it be known she was selling fresh farm eggs, and so I contacted her. My schedule was difficult this week but we kept trying to meet, unsuccessfully. Finally yesterday I let her know I could meet somewhere but she insisted on coming to my home to deliver. She showed up with kids in tow — I suspect her huge, 6 foot+teenage son sitting in the passenger seat was security — and we completed the transaction. We love farm eggs so we were pleased, but I have to admit there was a feel of desperation in the sale. I may be imagining, but it seemed like an unemployed person desperate for income, any income.
And it is full-blown snowing outside now, at 4.00 p.m. in the afternoon. Kinda pretty, actually.
Be well —
May 6, 2020: While on a conference line with work colleagues waiting for people to join, several who were based in New York commented that New Yorkers have tossed open container laws out the window, and people are wandering the streets now with open beer cans, liquor bottles, even Margaritas. New York has descended into a party.
Be well —
May 5, 2020: I was thinking today about the difference between the people I see on the news (who infuriate me) and the people I encounter around here, both my neighbors and the folks I meet when shopping (who inspire me). In Group A, we see a bunch of knuckle-dragging reactionaries who blame what is essentially a biological event on some bogeyman. Our news, which is, after all, a business that chases profits and is therefore incentivized to sensationalize its content, has been shoving cameras and microphones in front of these people — and they are sensational, and infuriating. But I think — I hope — they are a tiny minority. Shields & Brooks have been citing polls claiming the majority of Americans support the restrictions, or at least understand them. I am sympathetic to the plight of people who have lost jobs and desperately want things to go back to normal, but they seem to blame the gubmint or Liberals or (in today’s news — medical experts) for somehow causing all this, and that is just rank stupidity. In any event, the post-COVID-19 normal is not going to look anything like the pre-COVID-19 normal. We, society, and the economy have been profoundly changed. Any thoughts of things snapping back like an elastic band to the January, 2020 normal in a month or so is pure fantasy. Just from an economic perspective, I can see this will take years to recover.
I saw an interview with a woman whose husband watched Fox News and believed COVID-19 to be a hoax and so he refused to take any precautions, and he ended up catching the virus and dying. In this interview the distraught woman still blamed “the liberal media” for over-hyping COVID-19, compelling the truth-tellers like Fox News [sic] to downplay COVID-19’s impact, and thereby convincing her husband to disregard safety measures. This kind of mental acrobatics is astonishing.
But while she is sadly news, I suspect increasingly she is not the norm. Maybe it’s a regional thing, I don’t know, but the people I’m meeting on the street seem to be fully accepting of our situation, and are doing their part. Most are still in fairly good humor, joking about things, and most importantly are respectful of one another. I know some locals who are Fox News (or worse) followers, but while occasionally making wry jokes, even they are playing along and seem to be taking this seriously. My point is the national news I’m seeing (e.g., ABC, NBC, etc.) are constantly putting the crazies on the nightly news, while paying less attention to the majority of us who are doing the right things. It sends a message of lunacy, when only a small minority are trying to storm state houses with guns. Most of us are intelligent enough to understand a haircut can wait. Lives are more important.
Be well —
May 3, 2020: Had a chat with my sister-in-law in Poland today, who works in a local hospital. Generally, though she abhors the current government there (as do I), she says they did a good job with an immediate lock down, so that new cases have leveled off and the government is contemplating some measures for opening stuff. In Poland, the Church is all-powerful, almost like in medieval times, and she was complaining about how they were granted exemptions from social distancing rules — and now the last remaining outposts of new infections are Church institutions. In the hospital she said they’re seeing a huge uptick in alcoholism-related injuries, as well as domestic abuse. Aside from the actual injuries they incur, the drunks are problematic because they don’t observe social distancing rules, often then posing a double-danger to staff. She described some neighbors who pooh-poohed the whole coronavirus threat until they saw people dropping, and they were suddenly converted and became ultra-hyper-careful. While it’s just anecdotal, based on my conversation with her it seems like the whole quarantine has been taken more seriously in Poland than here. This is reinforced by a blog post written this past week written by a British banking analyst I follow who is married to a Pole and lives in Poland, and he mentioned being initially outraged by the tight restrictions Poland put in place very early on — but changed his mind after he saw the chaos unfolding in the UK and the US with the half-measures both enacted.
Also, apparently my nieces spoke extensively with my wife earlier this morning on Skype and helped her go through her closet, helping Ciocia/Auntie decide what to ditch and what to keep. They have now volunteered to lend their fashion expertise to my wardrobe.
Today was a gorgeous spring day and we spent some quality time in the yard and just bopping around the house, getting things done here and there but basically living like it was a Sunday. Because, you know, it was.
Be well —
May 2, 2020: The local gas station used to sell the most amazing chocolate chip cookies, made locally by somebody. It got so that any time I needed gas, I made a beeline for this place, just to get a cookie. (I guess the cookies did their job as far as the gas station owners were concerned.) I say “used to,” because now in the little basket by the register where they used to be, they sell face masks. I looked around but could find no trace of my beloved cookies. My wife had told me they were selling masks now — the quarantine has put a big dent in my driving, so that today was the first day in a month I needed to stop for gas — and she wanted me to pick up a pack. But I didn’t realize the masks would be supplanting those wonderful cookies. So I bought some masks with my gas, looking like a kid being tugged away from the candy store window.
I actually did have a good day, but on the way home on Route 93 I remembered the cookies and was feeling sorry for myself, when a big bug hit the windshield. And I thought, “OK, my day isn’t going that bad.”
Be well —
May 1, 2020: We have a lot of friends who work in healthcare in various capacities. This ranges from older, retired professionals to one friend who just got his RN license last year. So today we got news that two of them have been exposed to COVID-19, though I think both are at this point a-symptomatic. In one case, a younger child is involved so they’ve taken steps, shipping the teenage child off to the grandparents while they isolate themselves for two weeks. It’s more complicated that that; the woman in question is living financially on the edge, and can’t afford to stop working. It’s selfish, but on the other hand, she’s worried about being able to keep roof overhead and feed her family. She hasn’t been tested herself yet — that’s in the works — but her idiot daughter has (and has tested positive), after she was irresponsible and repeatedly went into public places without taking precautions. In the other case there are no young children involved but still, they have to lock themselves up for two weeks. This latter case was the result of a patient who waited until after a visit was over to inform our relative, a nurse, they had tested positive.
Friends are asking for face masks so we’re giving some of ours to them, and trying to buy more through the online networks for our old, elderly neighbors. I think one guy next to whom we lived until last year hasn’t left his home in a month or more. He’s terrified. My wife does his shopping each week, taking a list over the phone and delivering to his front porch and leaving the groceries there. He waits until she’s gone to bring them in.
I am going to rant again about the idiots in Michigan who are protesting, storming the state house and brandishing Confederate flags and guns. (Imagine a crowd of blacks doing the same, storming into a state house with Black Panther flags and guns. How do you think that would end? Would the President be calling them good folks?) Nobody knows how we’ll reopen the economy and everyone has the right to be concerned and voice their opinion on that process, but this kind of irresponsible behavior is just dangerous political theater — and shows a complete disregard for their fellow citizens. It isn’t bad enough we’re going through this, and now we have to put up with intimidation and demonization as well?
Be well —
April 29, 2020: Grabbed some more face masks today, from a local woman. She refused to take any money for them. She hand-made them. Crises like this bring out the best in some people, the worst in others, as I am learning. I think this summer if/when restrictions are loosened somewhat, we’ll bake her something.
A coworker revealed today that he is working 16 hour days regularly. Most of his colleagues on his team were laid off a couple weeks back, and he is frantic about keeping his job. I am seeing more like him, people who feel like cornered animals. The consulting firms are starting to come alive again after a month of shocks, and the thought leadership they’re pushing emphasizes how this crisis will likely lead to a tsunami of automation, so that a lot of those furloughed jobs are going to simply go away. This shouldn’t be shocking; there have been analysts and others talking about this day for years now. COVID-19 is just accelerating what was already underway. When we say “automation” today, many picture factories where robot arms do the work humans used to do, but modern automation is really in the form of software that replaces white collar jobs (like mine). The industrial revolution created the idea of compensation, that a worker does something for an employer and is compensated for it. That relationship is going away, and there will be going forward a growing mass of under-educated, under-skilled, unemployable people who have memories of once being useful — as well as once having earned middle class lifestyles. There is a side of me that recognizes this is just change, and it just requires a pivot on our part, a reorientation to acknowledge and accommodate the new. But I also know we don’t do change very well, especially on this scale, and our current politics and economic debates are stuck in 1970. That leaves a lot of disaffected, marginalized, angry people. Gonna be a fun decade.
Be well —
April 28, 2020: It has rained for the past couple days, hard at times, and so it was a very pleasant surprise when I went to the kitchen window this evening at dusk and caught a glimpse of the sun peaking out over the clouds, but just as it was disappearing beneath the horizon. This created a golden glow effect on the very tops of the trees in the backyard as they caught this brief glint of sunshine. It was somehow life-affirming. It’s odd how we humans are wired for this sort of thing, but I am grateful for the ability to see beauty.
Saturday was a wonderful watershed, the ability to get out and be social (kinda-sorta, from the safety of our car). About the only times otherwise I have actual contact with people I’m not married to is when I’m shopping. And that happens once a week.
Speaking of which, my wife mentioned that she berated some woman in the local Shaws for not following the direction arrows on the floor, going against traffic in an aisle. I just sat quietly and listened as she expressed her outrage that this cow-of-a-woman couldn’t follow basic directions — quiet because I have pretty much ignored those directional arrows on the floor myself. I vaguely became aware they were there a week or so back when some woman pointed them out to me, but she was just discovering them herself. So now food store aisles are all one-way. OK, I suppose I’ll start paying more attention to those. I wonder if someone ever went home and complained that some 3-star moron (i.e., me) wasn’t following the aisle arrows?
I finally heard from a friend in Hungary, and she seems to be doing OK. I will learn more this weekend. I was afraid; she’s had frail health for some years, sometimes to the extent she’s been bed-ridden. My concerns are two-fold: her physical health, and her employment. She’s an English language teacher — the best I know. She is infamously brutal (her students fear her), but her students are also known to excel with above-average English skills. I can’t imagine her school is still operating, but I will find out.
I am pulling back from Facebook a bit. I never really took it seriously, but it’s been a nice tool to keep track of extended family, friends and old colleagues who don’t live nearby — the people you don’t get to meet regularly. But unfortunately, a sizable portion of my networking community are, for lack of a better term, rightwing nutjobs. It isn’t just their politics that grates on my nerves, but their propensity to rant, and worst, their slavish adherence to the rightwing propaganda machine that spews non-stop fear and outrage. Every day I know what Fox News or Sean Hannity or etc. have said, because it ripples out through Facebookworld like a virus, with so many people just repeating verbatim what they saw on their favorite show. Each day I see the exact same talking points repeated mindlessly on homepages, often word-for-word. They’re scared, I get it — hey, I’m scared too — but we’re all under attack from a mindless microbe and no amount of culture war chest-pounding will save you. I am particularly concerned because some rightwing fools are pushing the narrative of COVID-19 being a hoax or exaggerated, and I’m seeing a small but growing number of their cult followers asserting they will stop doing what the CDC or gubmint’ tells them to, that it’s all some sort of conspiracy against freedom. It’s not just rank stupidity, it’s dangerous. I saw today that now more Americans have died from COVID-19 than died in the entire Vietnam War. This is dangerous stuff, and no time for fantasies. To be sure, there is a mirror base of nutjobs on the other side as well, but that group is far smaller.
I wonder if any of us will look back on these years and be ashamed?
Until then, be well —
April 26, 2020: Today cabin fever really set in so I piled the wife into the car and we headed for the coast. All along Route 1A there are these little pull-offs where you can park and either stroll or sit and watch the ocean. It doesn’t hurt that there are also mansions all along this route, some monstrously overwrought (i.e., gaudy) but some more stately and elegant, and well-sculpted into their environment. (We were visiting a beautiful historic Victorian-style garden in one of these houses a couple summers back, when we noticed the neighbors, whose house was what an Italianate mansion might look like in the Sims computer game, had splayed out on their vast front lawn a series of plaster (?) human figures made to look like marble, but many of which had apparently arrived damaged. Their wooden crates also laid about the lawn.) It was supposed to rain heavily today so I’d nixed these ideas yesterday, but as I saw the weather holding off this morning, I thought — why not? We would take a drive to the coast, and spend some time on the ocean, far from crowds, breathing in the salt air and listening to the waves crash on the rocks. Ahhhh.
But plans are designed to go awry. The first hint of a crack came as we headed out east on 101, and realized we were not alone. Now, I know the beaches are closed, so I was hoping they were going some place else. Portsmouth maybe? But no, as I got off onto Route 1, the crowd stayed with me. Same thing when I turned down 1A, a single lane road. So this large mass of vitamin D-deprived humanity snaked single-file all the way to the ocean. I could see five or six cars ahead of me, and two or three behind me, and the same group basically made the entire journey.
The next hint that today was not going to go as planned came as we approached the final exit on 101, where we found one of those temporary digital road signs informing us that all state parks are closed, and that there was no parking on Route 1A. Now, there are a few large scale parks along that road, so I was hoping the sign was referring to those. Besides, there were at least a dozen of those small pull-offs along the way, some with room for only 2-5 cars. It’s not like they could watch them all, right? We immediately began hatching a plot: we’ll pull off and enjoy as much time as we can, and if a cop came along then we’d play ignorant, but obligingly leave. (Yes, our morals were compromised.) But alas, we were wrong. They actually did manage to block every single one of them with orange cones and had cops aggressively patrolling the entire length of the route. And so this long convoy of out-of-towners (us among them) gazed out longingly over the ocean from our cars as we drove 30 mph all the way from the Hamptons to Portsmouth, unable to stop or park anywhere. You could see the same forlorn expression on everyone’s faces, and we each only went off on our separate ways after we arrived in Portsmouth.
Well, while not quite what we were hoping for, still, it was a pleasant drive, and a tonic to get out. The ocean is beautiful. And Route 1A is a very scenic drive with amazing ocean views and historic homes all along the way.
We also paid attention to the many businesses along the way. These were mostly seasonal seafood restaurants and boat supply places, which we speculated may be OK because they’re already seasonal and were prepared for a slow spring season. The pain for them will come if the summer season is impacted — and it may be. This route is also packed with museums, parks and historic sites, and we found ourselves repeating, “If we are allowed to go out this summer, we’ll have to stop and see this place…”
We drove around Portsmouth a little bit and crossed over into Kittery, Maine for no apparent reason. It still felt good to see these places again, and just get out of the house. (Note: when we got to the Maine side of the bridge, a flashing digital sign informed us that all non-Maine residents had to adhere to a 2 week self-quarantine upon entering the state. We just never got out of the car and high-tailed it back to New Hampshire.) We drove home on our favorite route which is more in the way of back roads, and as we passed through a jumble of small towns, we kept looking to see if businesses we like were still open, or at least not liquidated or gone forever. For many, it was hard to tell. One of the latter is a surprisingly sizable used bookstore, in the middle of nowhere, but so well stocked and operated by an ancient man. I hope he and the store make it.
Finally, I’ll mention what a hazard it is driving now that so many people are out biking, jogging and walking. They make sidewalks for a reason, people! Use ’em!
Be well —
April 23, 2020: So today I had to grab something in Walmart while on lunch from work. I ended up chatting with the guy who helped me at the counter, after he fielded two calls about bikes. He told me this particular Walmart ended up hiring an outside company to assemble bicycles — 50 just this morning, in the back of the store. And he said they’ve all already been sold. They can’t keep them in stock; people are clamoring for them. Another store employee walked by at one point pushing two kids bikes towards the registers. Makes sense; folks are stuck at home and getting cabin fever, made worse by the (kinda-sorta) arrival of spring. Add kids to the equation, and yeah, I’d pay lots of money to get my hands on a bike too. Actually, I have two good bikes in the garage, but they are in sore need of maintenance.
Also got some of the weekly food shopping out of the way today. The stores seem better stocked. I am keenly aware of how that will impact morale. About 2/3 of shoppers were wearing masks today. And for the most part, people seem civil, some friendly even. I go out of my way to be kind and friendly. It helps me to see this in others. One minor blip for myself was that some of the new face masks we’ve bought don’t fit my face. I must have the world’s weirdest head — nothing ever fits: glasses, hats, and now masks. I’ve got big ears so you’d think masks would be no problem, but the one I had today just kept launching itself off my face because my ear would just fold, catapulting the damned thing like a rubber band off in some direction. I gave up after a while. (I had plastic gloves on, at least.) Today was the first time I came to MarketBasket in weeks. They have some brands we prefer, and the line out front wasn’t too long. A new procedure now is that you must stand 6 feet from the end of the check out when waiting at the register, and after every customer the cashier sprays down and wipes the entire conveyor belt clean before you can start loading your stuff.
After work we took a walk around the yard, watching flowers poking up out of the soil and both trees and bushes budding. I love winter, but I love spring as well. Had a nice chat with one of our neighbors, a no-nonsense type of guy. He’s an odd duck. We suspect he and his wife don’t get along, because he seems to go to great lengths to develop handyman projects outside. Our little chat with him gave me some hope, because for some reason I can’t quite put my finger on, I always thought he was some rightwing nut. But he just said some common-sense stuff tonight — we’ll all get through this if everyone just does what the medical professionals tell us. I like being wrong about people sometimes. This filled me with the hope that the number of idiots in this country is smaller than our media would have us believe, that it’s the squeaky wheel syndrome that compels journalists to point cameras at and put microphones in front of the loudest, most obnoxious morons, but that in truth (I hope) they are really just a tiny minority, that most Americans are still decent, caring, conscientious, compassionate people.
Be well —
April 22, 2020: I have some friends (including my wife) who work in the medical manufacturing world, and they are under intense stress nowadays. This week, I’ve seen some pretty extreme emotional reactions among them. Of course, the emotions among those working directly in the healthcare delivery field must be through the roof — but just noticing how raw nerves are getting across the board.
April 20, 2020: The protests scare me. Several people, historians who had studied the influenza pandemic of 1918-1919 included, predicted there would be this kind of unrest. People are afraid, the news every night is terrifying, and they feel powerless, trapped in their homes. Demagogues have harnessed that fear and people think this is some sort of civil rights issue. It is, as John the Younger put it, a no-holds barred primal war of microscopic organisms against vertebrates. We are fighting for our lives. I understand the fear and the hardship — but this is rank stupidity. I am really f**ing sick and tired of the culture wars, of this whiny cult of victimhood.
Yesterday we had an unusual distraction — a guilty pleasure, actually. My wife had mentioned that the local seasonal ice cream place was open — could that be right? In mid-April? But sure enough, as I passed it on my way to shopping this week, I saw it was open. And so yesterday, while slogging through some school work, she declared: let’s get some ice cream! Off we went. It felt good to drive, actually, if only for a few minutes. It was after 5.00 p.m. and maybe 50 degrees out, with a slight breeze, so I wasn’t sure the place would even be open. But not only was it open, but I underestimated my fellow detainees’ desperation to get out and do something — anything — “normal.” The entire time we were there, there was a constant flow of people coming and going, with a consistent dozen or so cars in the parking lot at all times. The line stretched around to the back, though this was in part because of the need to maintain ten-foot intervals marked on the sidewalk by mats. No cones, only cups, and you had to shout your order to the first window, Then you proceeded to the next window where you had to wait until the staff put your order out and closed the window before you could pick it up. No tables, but we enjoyed just standing in the back lot looking out across the valley, to the hills on the other side of the river. I got vanilla-chocolate soft serve swirl, she got pistachio-coffee. Also, no napkins so I had to endure an encrusted mustache until I got home. I noticed a lot of people were utilizing the place’s full take-out kitchen fare, serving burgers and hot dogs, etc. It was all great fun, but not something we can repeat often, if only for our waistlines, say nothing of COVID-19.
Yesterday I also caved in to the inevitable reality that my barber is closed, and allowed my wife to shave the noggin. Given that I lost most of my hair decades ago, it doesn’t take a Michelangelo of hairstylists to finesse my mane, and she did a decent job. Truth is, I go to my barber as much for the humor and conversation as the buzz cut.
I was stunned when I woke up Saturday ready for yard work, only to be confronted by snow. It was very pretty, actually. Just unexpected in mid-April. But, then, to be fair, I was once waiting for the light on the corner of Transit Road and Genesee Street in Depew, NY in the first week of June, when a snow squall suddenly enveloped the car. S*** happens, I guess.
Be well —
April 18, 2020: I hate masks. But I am wearing them when in public, at least indoors. They fog up my glasses constantly. Very annoying. But, fogged glasses is easier to deal with than an excruciating respiratory death, so I do it.
I note that more and more people are wearing masks, usually home-made ones in all sorts of colors and patterns. A cottage industry has sprung up with mostly women making these masks and either selling or distributing among family and friends. Through various channels we have bought or received a half dozen masks now. The local community boards online had lit up with people selling them, or even just giving them away.
Shopping is becoming a chore, and more items are becoming difficult to get. For us at least, nothing in the way of necessities is unavailable, it’s merely an inconvenience that stuff we’re used to being able to buy whenever we want is now difficult to find: want versus need. But I do fear that over time as supply chains thin out, more critical things will become problematic. It’s not that I fear for us so much; we’ll adapt. We have no choice. And most people will adapt. But there are some who may hit the panic button when they see basic commodities unavailable, and the ugliness may start appearing: rioting, violence, etc. The idiot protesters in Michigan yesterday prompted some of this thinking, people who are listening to ignorant propaganda telling them this can’t possibly really be happening. This fear of social unrest is just wandering in the back of my head. It is a reminder of the extraordinary times we’ve lived through until now, of an unprecedented era of opulence and choice. World War II-style rationing comes to mind as well; our future?
When I’ve been shopping recently, which is about all the social contact we’re getting nowadays, it feels a bit like the George Romero film Dawn of the Dead, when the protagonists who are trapped in a shopping mall during a zombie apocalypse. From a hiding spot they are talking while they’re observing the dead just stumble up and down the mall halls. One of the protagonists asks why the dead have congregated here, and the other responds that maybe because this was the place they felt the most value in life. Ouch.
I caught up (online) quickly with an old colleague and friend this morning who related that she somehow shattered a knee cap, but is being treated remotely by her doctor, with obviously limited capabilities and results. And forget physical therapy. Ouch again.
At least our writers group is still keeping up with meetings. That really helps with morale. People! Human beings!
Otherwise, still writing and reading, enjoying some films. I was planning on some yard work today (and still may) but it is currently snowing outside (note: mid-April). We check up on some old neighbors and do their shopping.
Be well —
April 15, 2020: So later today I will be meeting some local unemployed woman in a nearby business parking lot — for an illicit drug deal? An affair? Some illegal aliens smuggling? For secret files on the Kennedy assassination? Nope. She is making washable fabric face masks on the side, so I’ll be paying her $20 for two. She advertises on a local neighborhood forum. The snowballing consensus among medical professionals is that we ought to wear masks in public, for the foreseeable future. And so I will do so. I am a little concerned; she seemed to be making these masks out of whatever fabric was around her home, like from her curtains or the couch, so I hope I don’t get green plaid or polka dots. Well, function over form.
So my work went through another series of lay offs and reorganization today. There’s nothing like getting a call from the big boss mid-day, and his opening line is, “Um, do you have a few minutes…?” Why yes, as a matter of fact, I do. Luckily for me it was relatively good news, as I’m escaping with a changed job description and a temporarily shaved salary; some colleagues made out much worse.
My publisher contacted me today as well to let me know he’s really in deep financial doo-doo, so the second edition of my book is being postponed, possibly to October. (Quite frankly, I think that’s optimistic.) I expected as much. In the meantime, I’ll do what I do best — I’ll tinker with the manuscript, nipping and tucking, and maybe adding something about more recent events.
I am trying to be more vigilant about exercise and walking. So far so good, though the calf and thigh muscles are complaining. I’ve been doing this for a few weeks now but the urgency is on as I saw a claim today from a medical source that so far in the U.S. the leading indicator of a COVID-19-positive person requiring hospitalization is not a pre-existing respiratory illness, but obesity. Yikes.
So far, we are still alive and employed.
Be well —
April 13, 2020: Well, the good news is I feel much better today. Last night I went to bed feeling like complete crap, like someone had tied a brick to my upper respiratory system. I took some Benedryl but it only made a minor dent in how I felt. I’ll admit I was kinda scared when I went to sleep, my concerns being both for my own hide, and how I was going to shield my wife from this. But, I woke up this morning in far better condition. Yesterday was a bright, beautiful spring day, and I spent some time out in the yard, and we went for a walk at one point. Very nice. In fact, now that I recall, it was Easter. Well, buried in all the atmospheric niceness was lots and lots of pollen. As I’ve gotten older I’ve found myself becoming more susceptible to seasonal allergies. When I was a youngun’ , I had no allergies at all which became a kind of liability as I was the only kid able to work in the top of a hay barn in August, and so that’s where I was deployed each summer. But now, as a fogie, the immune system seems to be showing some cracks, and indeed for some years now, each spring and autumn I get an irritated sinus system and roughed up throat. It’s usually fairly mild, just annoying. Yesterday was much more intense, not sure why. Why do I feel better today? Today was a monsoon day, with New Hampshire getting two inches of rain accompanied by 40-50 mile per hour winds. (The back window really looked like someone was throwing buckets of water at it this afternoon.) In other words, the pollen all got a soaking and my system got a break. I am grateful for the rain revealing what my issue was — something annoying, but minor. On that very relieved note, be well —
April 12, 2020: Today may be the game changer, at least for me. I’m not referring to the fact my wife washed my car clicker in the laundry, and I have to replace that. I woke up with an odd sinus irritation that extended to my eyes. About mid-day I chalked this up to seasonal allergies, which I usually struggle with each spring and autumn. But by the end of the day, I am not so sure. My whole upper respiratory system feels…off. Now, I am not a hypochondriac but you can’t help but panic in times like this. We’ll see how I feel tomorrow but I will completely stop going out for the next two weeks. The more difficult part will be protecting my wife.
Be well —
April 11, 2020: It’s becoming normal to see TV presenters who do live shows present from home, like Shields & Brooks. (Mark Shields’ house looks like mine, cluttered and filled with books. I’m kinda proud.) But David Brooks said something interesting, about the toll this is taking on people’s mental health. In our writers groups we’ve been joking about this, that we’re all introverts and some may not have even noticed there was a shelter-in-place order in effect. But really, this has made me realize what a home-body I am, that I have built a complex mental structure around my home so that I am entirely comfortable spending lots of time here. There is a tiny, pin-prick level awareness in the back of my mind that I’m stuck here, that I can’t (shouldn’t) leave — but I’m surrounded here by my work, by books, by a wonderful yard, by lots of fun films, and all sorts of stuff to do. This has also made me aware of my mental environment, about the realm in my head I’m interacting with when I walk around here, how I’m seeing very different things than what anyone else wandering my home might see — but that’s all another rabbit hole. In any event, though we feel the constraint of not being able to see friends or enjoy restaurants and casual shopping, we are pretty much all set. In the larger context of the world today, we’re doing OK.
And that, in turn (returning to Brooks’ point), has made me aware of the pain of those who have a very different relationship with their home. This includes those who simply have far more active social lives than me, for home home is more of a depository for their stuff while they’re out. And then there are those who’ve lost their jobs. That is terrifying. I’ve read stories of landlords working with tenants or even cancelling rent — but that sort of good will can only go on for so long. We are blessed so far, and both have our jobs (which not only pay the bills but take up some mental room as well, keeping us busy.) Some have claimed the 2008 economic crisis had a profound effect how Millennials see the world; I can only wonder how the younger generations will be shaped by COVID-19 and the resulting economic changes.
And that reminds me of a point John the Elder has made in the past, how people jolted out of their routines sometimes have great difficulty accepting their new reality. They refuse to believe what their eyes are telling them — because they’ve never seen this before, and desperately want to just keep doing things the way they used to. He has described scenes from his ER days where people suddenly confronted with an unexpected emergency — a health issue, a robbery, a car accident — and are paralyzed by the simple inability to accept what’s happening. This is an odd human trait, this weak sense of situational awareness, and I am seeing it at play a lot nowadays. I won’t claim that I myself am above this problem. I want to be able to just do things like pop out to the store to grab something I want, and yet if I imagine someone in the middle of the Bubonic Plague still going to markets for leisure shopping, it sounds insane.
It seems living requires thinking.
Be well —
April 9, 2020: This is my routine now. I went out yesterday to grab a couple things at the local corner food market. Once back in the car I squirted some hand sanitizer into my palm that my wife had put there years ago — the top had long since broken off, so you have to gently push this plastic tube sticking out of the bottle, and it’ll eventually deposit a small blob of 2008-era cleanser in your hands. I made sure to goop-up the steering wheel as well, then off we go.
Upon arriving home, I took the groceries into the kitchen, then washed my hands. Then I grabbed a sanitizing napkin and wiped down the surfaces of the stuff I’d just bought, then let it dry while I wiped down the door knob, door, my car door handle (inside and outside), steering wheel (extensively), the shift knob, my mirror, my GPS screen, and the seat belt clasp. Close and lock the car, go back into the house, clean the table and any surface I touched, and throw the napkin away. Then put the stuff I just bought into the fridge, and commence washing hands again.
And then usually at this point, by touching the water again, I realize I have to go to the bathroom, which will require Round 3 of hand-washing. I’m not going to have any hands left by the time this virus runs its course, just two bloody stumps.
Each evening I use the sanitary napkins to wipe down table and counter surfaces, the parts of the doors we touch, the light switches, the fridge and dishwasher handles, and our security system buttons.
Today was a day of heavy rains so little chance for a walk. I ended up in the basement on the treadmill after work. I’m probably more effective on a treadmill anyway; I just put music on and don’t stop until the music stops. The album ends and I’m a sweaty mess.
On a final and unrelated note, as proof of the psychological damage an American childhood has inflicted upon me, I realized while driving yesterday that I do something ridiculously childish. And I’ve been doing it for years. My car is pretty zippy — not that’s it’s a fast car or anything, but the weight-to-power ratio is such that its little engine can get going pretty quickly, usually faster than other cars at intersections, for instance. I’ve gotten used to being able to zip into traffic or past other cars when I need to maneuver in traffic, like changing lanes. All this becomes a problem when I drive a rental, and realize they can’t move as quickly as I’m used to. Well, when I blast off and leave everybody else in the dust, I feel compelled to blurt out loud, “Meep meep!”
Be well —
April 8, 2020: I am either too short, or poorly proportioned. Pants have never fit me well. I’m used to it, and don’t give it a second thought. When pants fit my waist, they are usually too long. (I’ll point out in my defense that this was true even when I was skinny.) The simple solution is I fold my jeans pant cuffs up. Works like a charm. Except that my wife hates it, claiming I look like Farmer Bob. My poor fashion sense aside, all of this went through my head this morning as I was getting dressed and, yes, rolled my jeans pant cuffs up. I next thought I should take this particular pair of jeans to a tailor I like in Londonderry for some shortening.
And then my next thought was — “Oh, I wonder if she’ll still be open when this is all over?”
That’s become a constant thought process for me in recent weeks, as I ponder normal, everyday activities and routines only to hit that wall and wonder whether a business I like will survive this. I generally try to patronize smaller, local businesses when I can, and so now a whole stream of places I like are going through my head as I imagine the day when this is all over (and I’m hopefully still here), and we can all get back to some normal life. This isn’t so much for my sake (“Where will I find another good tailor?”) but the people whom I’ve gotten to know at those businesses: the guy who repaired my wife’s boot heels, the small engine shop that got my chain saw running again last summer, the farm stands we love, that old guy who owns the small (but packed!) used bookstore in Northwood we discovered last summer, our beloved waitress at the Corner Booth in Halligan’s. Where will these people be when this is all over? Their faces keep popping into my mind as I go about my day and try to plan for that future.
I realized this week that I’ve probably put 30 miles on my car so far this month. I needed a few things today — not desperately, conveniences really — so I decided to take a jaunt to the local corner food shop, to get out a bit (on lunch from work), get some air, and make sure the oil didn’t solidify into a sludge in the car. I still don’t have a mask and felt guilty as I made my way through the place. I felt condemning eyes on me everywhere as I shopped. I was probably just being paranoid, but on some local neighborhood online boards a lot of people have been very critical of anyone they suspect of going out for frivolous reasons, and especially if they’re not wearing a mask. I swear — I’ll wear them once I get my hands on one. This has been the first time this week I’ve left home by car.
I have heard mumbled complaints about MarketBasket’s new policies. A couple folks I’m connected to on FB have said they’ll stop shopping there. I’m kind of torn about that. I understand the need for new rules, but MB’s does seem a bit extreme. The last few times I’ve been in their stores it’s felt like I’m being herded. I don’t like that sensation, but MarketBasket is probably doing the right thing. This is just a reminder of how bound up together our fates are as human beings, how linked and inter-connected we are by all these inter-woven supply chains we’re all dependent on. This is the price of having access to such a big variety of food and products.
Two daffodils poked up this week in the front yard, and a small shrub I wasn’t sure about suddenly showed signs of life today, sprouting pink buds. I see hope in that.
Be well —
April 7, 2020: Starting on a positive note, the oak tree out front is budding, as are several other trees in the yard, and two daffodils have opened. Iris and even day lily sprouts are poking up all over the place. Gonna be a pretty spring. I have inherited my grandfather’s love for field flowers: lillies, black-eyed susans, lupines, columbines, partridgeberry — love ’em all. Heck, I even like dandelions. When chatting last summer with the town DOT head — back when social contact was allowed — he mentioned that New Hampshire is being overrun by an invasive species: sumac trees. He hated the things, but I grew up with them along roadsides and in ditches in Cattaraugus and Allegany counties in southwestern New York. To me, they symbolize the heart of summer. Sorry, I didn’t bring them to New Hampshire, but I welcome them.
Speaking of social contact and town officials, I’m dying to be able to be able to visit the town sewer authority again, because they have this massive, full wall map of the town with each property outlined. It’s from the 1960s, I think. Last time I was there I only vaguely caught sight of my property, but I want to understand better where my back property line is. Behind the house there’s a large woods, but we’ve noticed as we’ve gone walking in the area that several very old, crumbled stone walls snake through the woods. Love to know more about the history of this place. I’ll also have to hit town hall and see what records they have. Also, the right hand back corner of my property is a Highway 66 for local critters of all sides. Per recommendations I have picked up a critter cam, and will be deploying as soon as I figure out how to use it. Videos to ensue. Man, I’ve become a fogey.
In the monthly New Hampshire Writers Project meeting last night — virtual; we miss you Martha — someone mentioned being cooped up and not seeing anyone. The irony for us is that we rarely saw our neighbors (beyond those immediately around us), until now. Now that everyone’s at home and not at work, everyone’s out walking their dogs or just getting some exercise. I’ve never seen so many people in our area. We live on a sizable hill, and I think the only one with a sidewalk in the whole town, so everybody comes here. And that’s fine with me. As we were walking today, a woman we’ve never met was approaching from the opposite direction, and she suddenly blurted out as she approached, “Now everybody hold their breath!” and she dramatically inhaled until her cheeks bulged as she passed by. We laughed. The news gets more and more serious every day, but at least in our experience, everyone (well, most) still have a sense of humor.
We are getting serious about getting masks. Apparently one of my wife’s friends (who also works in medical manufacturing) just took in a shipment of several thousand, so we’ll buy a couple off her. My wife described the specs but I don’t know anything about medical masks. Once procured, I do plan on wearing one while in public when out and about. And, admittedly, I will be trying to curtail the times when I need to go out to public places, for instance only shopping every other week. The yard and my writing will keep me occupied, though I also want to spend more time doing leisure reading. I’m thinking of doing an Asimov marathon this summer.
Be well —
April 4, 2020: People are starting to wear masks increasingly in public. A week or so ago it was mostly older people — I still flatter myself that I don’t fit into that category — and the most vulnerable, but now increasingly I’m seeing a broader cross section of people wearing masks. I saw an older gentleman today in Shaw’s wearing a military gas mask. (I have a West German Bundeswehr gas mask from the 1980s here somewhere. I wonder if the filter is still good…?) I was in New York for work the first week of February, and back then corona virus was some foreign problem. In Midtown Manhattan there were Chinese people in the streets wearing cloth masks, and it was a little unsettling. I’d seen many Asians wearing masks on TV and in news reports, but seeing them in person on the streets of New York, when nobody else around them was wearing any, just felt odd. You can feel things are getting serious now. People are more serious about maintaining distance. Well, good. It needs to be this way. My wife and I talked today about wearing masks. I rarely leave the house nowadays (well, outside the property, anyway), but she goes to work every day. I do leave a couple times a week, and would wear a mask — if they can be found.
We’re finally getting a string of nice days (weather-wise), so starting tomorrow I can start tackling some yard projects. My wife delivered some groceries this morning for an old neighbor of ours from when we lived in the condo. He’s 81 and terrified to go out. He wouldn’t come out to meet her (he waved through the window); she left the groceries on his porch and left. We are fully provisioned up, and are fine. (This is due to my Buffalo upbringing; every Buffalonian keeps enough basic supplies in storage for at least two weeks. You just assume that you’ll lose power and be snowed in for at least a week.) So in a sense, we’ve been hoarding for years, just spreading it out over time so that now all I need buy each week are some perishables.
In the larger sense, we (my wife and I) are doing fine, and pretty well set up. But as I’ve said, I am constantly fighting a rearguard action against this tide of fear that constantly threatens to overwhelm me. Luckily, there’s plenty to do (besides work) and we are stocked with writing projects, books, DVDs, music, and yard work. As I said, we’re fine. But as we keep seeing the stories each night on the news of younger people struck down by this, and I can’t help but think: why them, and not me? It’s like bobbing up and down on the ocean’s surface, treading water far from shore, and occasionally someone gets grabbed by something deadly beneath the surface. Nobody knows why it chooses which victims.
But today we live. Be well —
April 2, 2020: A month or so ago I joked that we would have to change the calendar, to “BC19” and “C19E” — “Before C-19” and “In the C-19 Era.” But this really has become a game changer, something that is redefining the world we live in.
Marketbasket has initiated new policies whereby only a certain number of people are allowed in stores at a time. When that number is reached, everyone else has to wait outside, at 6 foot intervals marked by blue tape. One woman today became testy when she stood directly behind the person in front of her, and had to be reminded to back up to the tape. I admit I reacted with anger when I saw her, but in truth it’s just habit. I also find myself doing things the way I’ve always done them, and have to remember (or be reminded) that things are different now. Once inside, a Marketbasket employee sprays a cart down with disinfectant, and gives it to you — and you’re on your way. Stores are keeping themselves stocked, while also engaging in huge cleaning exercises each night. On the whole, today’s incident notwithstanding, spirits seem to be high and people are decent to one another. I think boredom is the primary challenge now. As David Brooks observes, fear is coming, hopefully not to devolve into panic. I don’t want to find myself in a Lord of the Flies show, and so I am particularly mindful of being kind and patient as I interact with people.
Yesterday, an old high school friend who has had a pretty rough year, including a divorce, suddenly posted on Facebook that she was getting married. This set off all sorts of alarm bells, including in my mind, and I could see many of her friends very gently inquiring about this sudden news, being very delicate and careful not to reveal the concern we all felt — only to have her respond at day’s end that it was April 1st: April Fools, fools! Totally forgot, and the news in general has been so dire recently, we all just lost sight of humor. Thanks for the laugh, Vick —
My wife is working much more, which has me worried. But, as always, we have to be happy to have jobs. She left at 5.00 this a.m., and hopes to be home before 9.00 p.m. Welcome to the new economy. I was reading some reports that prophesied a slaughter of smaller businesses and even greater market dominance and concentration for mega-businesses. Unless the Federal government takes action, we will enter a new Dark Ages of monopolies; we’re already 2/3 of the way there. Paging Teddy Roosevelt.
The news is indeed becoming more and more dire. For us, the real impact has so far been marginal, more in the way of annoying than life-altering, but we’re very aware of others suffering. On the positive side, it’s nice to walk around and see the neighbors working in their yards, taking on projects long relegated to clipboards and the proverbial rainy day.
Addendum: I should mention that the constant hand-washing has really done brutal things to my delicate, supple skin. I normally suffer from eczema in the cold months, and the skin on my hands just naturally dries and cracks. Once, while waiting in line in Dallas-Ft Worth Airport, a cop approached me and asked if I needed medical treatment. I asked why, and he pointed down; the skin on my knuckles had dried and cracked, and I’d bled, leaving a 4″-wide puddle on the floor. (My apologies to the airport cleaning staff.) But this eczema usually goes away when the daily temps consistently hit 50 degrees or more. We’re in that part of spring that is borderline, with some days in the 50s and 60s, but nights in the 30s. Well, regardless, this year my constant hand-washing has thrown the whole system off. I have dried cracks everywhere on my hands. Often I’m not even aware this is happening (reference the Dallas anecdote) but now it is painful, and these cracks are developing in places where it is hard to set and heal. By now I think my hands are just balls of that liquid band-aid stuff. I’m just using regular hand soap, not any fancy kill-all-microbes desanitizers. A minor complaint, but ouch, dammit.
Be well —
March 31, 2020: The state released town-by-town data yesterday, revealing that between 1 and 4 cases have been confirmed in my dinky little town. This isn’t surprising because while small, it is really — even this far north — a suburb of Boston, or of eastern Massachusetts. This is what they call a “bedroom community,” a nice and scenic town that people come home to every day after working someplace else. In other words, the jobs are mostly somewhere else. This was an old mill town once, one of the Merrimack River textile towns that had so many immigrants a century ago that one contemporary source complained the town was essentially Francophone. Well, this is all to say that every day a large portion of the town travels to more populous southern New Hampshire or Massachusetts for work, which brings them into contact with a lot more people. I guess I’m grateful that only 1-4 locals are (confirmed) infected so far. I just read a new analysis that claims New Hampshire should expect to lose 350-400 people from this crisis. To date 3 people have died from COVID-19 in New Hampshire, all apparently people with other, severe medical issues.
Something scary happened this week, something I’ve quietly feared for a while. In Hungary, the wanna-be authoritarian president, Viktor Orbán, has made his move. Up until now he has used intimidation and fraud to win elections, and much the same to get his way with the Hungarian Parliament, but he’s at least felt constrained by this democratic window dressing to play by (some of) the rules. But no longer; this week he used the excuse of the CODID-19 crisis to get Parliament to give him extraordinary powers to rule by decree “for the duration of the crisis.” This crisis may present a lot of authoritarian-minded rulers an excuse to seize more power. Beware. I fear for an old friend, my old Hungarian language teacher, actually, who has been elected to a seat on the Budapest city council for the opposition. He’s been very vocal in his criticism of the Orbán regime — dangerous behavior nowadays.
So what does the world look like in Week 3 of this crisis? I see a lot of bored, furloughed neighbors out walking their dogs. So far it’s all been very friendly, and everybody waves. On the local online neighborhood discussion boards, people are reaching out to help neighbors. The local police ran a food drive for the unemployed. My wife burst out laughing when she saw a TV commercial from Angel Soft promising they were increasing their production capacity to pump up the supply of toilet paper. Seriously? When I picked up my prescription this morning, I had to stand at 6 feet intervals (marked by blue tape on the floor) in the line up to the pharmacy window. There’s a nice local corner food shop that’s been functioning pretty much as usual through all this (so far), with the exception of a 2-roll limit on toilet paper purchases, and a large plexi-glass screen erected at registers to prevent cashier and customer from breathing on one another. (I joked with a fellow customer in line, 6 feet behind me, that this would be a great idea for teenage dating. She loved it, but suggested teenagers themselves might be less enthusiastic.) I know a lot of local businesses have closed — hopefully temporarily — but the impact hasn’t really made itself felt yet because some of them were seasonal anyway.
We have also been walking around the area. My wife has taken up as a new hobby trying to pin down the identity of a local ghost house. Essentially, in the evenings from our back window, the lights of three windows on a house can be seen through the woods — but there’s no house there. We walk that route constantly, and each time try to figure out what the lights could be. We’ve looked at them with a telescope, which gave me one idea, that they may be a combination of large rocks and possibly snow reflecting light from street lights. But gal-durn it, if it doesn’t look each evening as if there’s a house not far behind our own home — when we know there’s nothing but woods for miles.
Be well —
March 29, 2020: Every day the news becomes more serious. When I was a student in Hungary sometime in the late 80s or first half of the 90s, I can distinctly remember the look of disgust a visiting American professor gave me when I confessed I hadn’t known anyone who had died of AIDs. He was from CUNY and was surrounded by people afflicted, but I just didn’t know anyone who had AIDs, or at least had told me they had AIDs. His look made it clear he considered me a provincial yokel, living under some rock. Apparently my circumstances haven’t changed because so far, COVID-19 has similarly been an abstract experience; I don’t know anyone personally who has caught the virus. And I’m OK with that; I know plenty of people (including my parents) who fall into higher risk categories. Ignorance is bliss, if selfish.
Actually, I’m wondering if I haven’t already had COVID-19, in milder form. Back in January my wife brought home from work (where she comes into daily contact with manufactured materials from all over the world, including China) a very nasty respiratory cold that was hard to shake, with a cough that lasted a good month after the other symptoms ended. We both ended up with this thing. I’ve never smoked and rarely have respiratory problems beyond colds, but this thing really hung on. I’ve never had pneumonia or bronchitis, for instance. We both also had gotten our flu shot back in November or so. We didn’t have the sore back that some people describe, but it oddly remained fixated on our respiratory systems, not bothering with the digestive symptoms that often accompany colds and flus. I do recall a very mild temperature one of the early nights. Well about two weeks after the main symptoms ended I attended the Flash Fiction, thinking that I was long past being contagious, and met several other fellow sufferers who had had the same malady, and all apparently thought like me they were now safe for social contact. We were wrong. The very next day several others who attended reported the immediate onset of some nasty symptoms. My apologies. But one wonders.
Anyway, as another week passes, the truth is I’m used to isolation and kind of like it. I do have to do some footwork to keep the wife from going stir crazy, but I go into project mode. As spring approaches, I need to make a wooden mount for new house numbers for out front, and — proof I’m entering my fuddy-duddy stage — I’m planning a series of bird houses for the back yard. I dream of making a purple martin hotel some day. On a more serious level, I note the back porch needs attention, and I have to fill in some mortar around the stone foundation. And the garage needs better organizing…
Be well —
March 27, 2020: “Hey dude, love your shirt!” That’s what I heard when leaving the store yesterday, on my way out. That sort of thing would normally make my wife cringe — she hates my tie-dyed shirts — but she was not with me. It was a nice injection of normalcy in an abnormal situation. I was doing my weekly shopping, and as soon as I walked in the front door I went on autopilot. That entails wandering up and down each aisle with a list, finding my stuff, and getting out. But I’m always amazed by supply chains and pay attention to where everything comes from. So there I am, after work, just doing my weekly shopping routine, but also carefully not panicking. Some people were; they had loaded their carts with all sorts of crap they likely will be throwing out in a couple weeks. But I just focused on getting what I needed for this week. I’ll be back next week. And so I settled in to a nice, leisurely stroll down the aisles, exchanging niceties with folks along the way.
Until, that is, the announcement came over the store speakers that the place was closing in 15 minutes. It was quarter to six p.m. on a Thursday night. Well, this was new. Admittedly, I ignored a bunch of crimson-font signs on the way in, assuming they all said things like don’t kiss anybody, and only two rolls of toilet paper allowed per customer — but apparently I’d missed the one saying the store closed at 6.00 p.m. on a week night. I’m not sure what the logic behind that was. One fellow shopper in the long lines at the registers speculated it was to allow time to re-stack shelves, but seriously — I was a stockboy when I was 14 years old, and it wouldn’t have taken me all night to do that place. So what ensued upon the announcement was a mad dash as all of us, yours truly included, suddenly had just 15 minutes to grab what we needed and get out. It was a great way to induce a panic. And they got one. Maybe the idea was that cutting store hours would discourage hoarding? If so, it seems to me that there are more effective ways to do that.
In any event, this all added up to me being quite flustered and frustrated by the time I did get through the registers, and so it was a pleasant surprise to have someone suddenly inject some sense of normalcy back into my life with the compliment about the shirt. Thank you, Sir, wherever you are.
On a side note, my father reminded me of an old 1970s Pat McManus story about a guy trapped in a mountain cabin during a blizzard that I need to dig up. Pat McManus is a great antidote for cabin fever — well, for anything, really.
Be well —
March 26, 2020: Went to the bank today and had to do the drive-through. (Bank lobbies are closed.) I haven’t done that in decades. I have to admit it was fun, playing with the pneumatic tube. I could also tell the over-worked teller was not impressed with my childhood sense of wonderment with 20th century technologies.
I next moved on to a local supermarket for a couple things, and found myself standing and cleaning my hands vigorously at the sanitizer stations they’ve set up by the entrances. This whole experience has made me much more aware of my relationship with surfaces, and I’ve developed a sort of tactile sensitivity recently. I have taken the approach friends from India taught me years ago, of a dirty (left) hand and a clean (right) hand, so there’s a division of labor between my hands as far as how I interact with my environment. When I was standing in line, the cashier cracked a joke with the customers in front of me, two women in their forties or so, about the need for such extreme precautions. One woman burst into laughter, while her companion did so more slowly, looking at her, finally commenting, “I know why she’s laughing.” The first woman nodded and mentioned she’s been a life-long extreme germophobe; the rest of the world is just now catching up to her lifestyle.
My trip to the food store took place over lunch so the store was relatively empty, but people were still civil. Both today and before I’ve seen examples of store managers having to firmly explain why there are limits on some items, as some people are still in hoard mode. (One article I read this morning written by a banking analyst said bluntly, there’s enough toilet paper. We know this because there was no shortage before COVID-19, and there’s nothing about COVID-19 that requires people to use more toilet paper than usual. Clearly toilet paper-hoarding is just a panic reaction.) But on the whole, civilization seems to keep plodding forth. I am grateful for that.
I did catch while in a small, local food place yesterday that even they have taken to hiring extra stock people for the night shifts recently. Apparently Marketbasket, Shaws and others have all been doing this, so that behind the scenes at night when stores close there’s been a massive effort to restock shelves, both to simply keep supplies flowing but also (I suspect with some nudging by state authorities) to fend off any panic: people can walk into these food stores at any time and see the shelves (mostly) full, as usual, which is a kind of reassurance. Imagine walking into your local food store and seeing the shelves ransacked and empty, and knowing you still had another month of quarantine…
We are concerned about our neighbors. I notice one is working in his yard a lot this week, and I haven’t seen he other go to work recently. We are blessed with good neighbors; I hope their finances hold out.
March 25, 2020: In this space I’ll be sharing some thoughts, stirrings and observations about my experience of the isolation we’re all living with under the threat of COVID-19. These are extraordinary times, and we’re all struggling to adjust to new normals. I’ve read many times about the Great Influenza pandemic of 1918-1919, so it is terrifying to see something similar happening now, today, in my lifetime. On the news tonight they showed a new temporary morgue being constructed in the parking lot of some hospital in New York, which reminded me of pictures from 1918 of coffins stacked high on Delaware Avenue in Buffalo, NY.
In a sense, I’m grateful for this experience. It helps me understand the fear and sense of helplessness people must have felt a century ago, of how we have to hope the people in charge know what they’re doing. The buffoon who gets all the news coverage surely does not, but others have risen to the occasion. I also appreciate being jolted out of my routines, and reminded of our shared humanity. Quite frankly, with the way our politics has been going recently, I am particularly grateful for something that transcends the noise and reminds us (if brutally) what in life is really important. As a historian, I am also intrigued by how our many overlapping systems work and interact; disruption like this reveals what is connected to what, and what they all mean to us.
But I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t…concerned. No, scared. Shitless. This is a disease that has behaved in some unpredictable ways, leaving some with an annoying joint ache and others with severely damaged lungs — and worse. I am in a lower risk category, but I’m a life form highly susceptible to COVID-19 like all my fellow humans, and have no idea how my body will react. And then there’s my wife, who works in what has been deemed an essential industry just this week, and must report in every day she can… Family, friends; it’s like we’re trapped in a horror film where some silent killer stalks among us. And I worry about the economic impact as well. In a bizarre irony, my company finds itself in an unusually stable moment, and may actually weather this. But so many others are not so lucky. One of my favorite local restaurants closed last Friday, and told me they weren’t sure if they’ll be able to reopen.
For the moment, it seems people are taking things in stride and being civil. My occasional forays to the supermarket or for other local needs have so far been pretty pleasant experiences, actually. People joke, share anecdotes, and give each other some room. I’ve seen some of the panic hoarding, but not not as much as is reported on the news. I get it — they’re scared, and there’s this impulse to just do something. I worry that panic may spread as this draws out. David Brooks commented about the 1918-1919 influenza crisis, that many tried afterward to blot it from their memory — not just because of the horrors of seeing so many die, but also because they were so ashamed of how they’d behaved to their neighbors and strangers in moments of stressed-out rage and panic. We haven’t seen that yet, but this crisis is still in its early stages. On tonight’s news some experts projected the peak for New York’s unfolding horror as being at best a few weeks in the future still.
I plan to continue to add to this so long as this crisis endures, and encourage others to do the same — either consider starting their own online journals, hopefully here on the WFoD blog, or even just add their thoughts and experiences to this column alongside mine.